Howard French: The View of Cairo from Authoritarian International

In the Atlantic, Howard French, former Shanghai bureau chief for the New York Times, writes that the recent revolution in Egypt has “shaken up the conventional wisdom” about China and about the “unfolding contest between the world’s messy and often paralyzed democracies, and a rising cohort of efficient, businesslike authoritarian states.”

It is hard, though, to overstate the difficulties of spinning the Egypt situation from the perspective of the star of the Authoritarian International, in the delightful phrase of Chrystia Freeland, of Reuters. Things were so much simpler when so-called Color Revolutions swept a number of constituent parts of the former Soviet Union and the Balkans in the early 2000s. Beijing could indulge in the paranoid or cynical fantasy that this was a case of the West using its insidious non-governmental organizations and funding for civil society to undermine authoritarian regimes that had traditionally been in the socialist orbit. This was cast as a hostile takeover, and Beijing used this as an excuse to tighten controls on association both real and virtual. It also spread its word of caution in the non-democratic world: “Beware. If you let your guard down, this is what the West will do to you.”

But Hosni Mubarak looked in vain for a Western plot to take over Egypt, and so will Chinese propagandists. The revolution in Tahrir Circle was homegrown, and moreover from the people’s perspective, at least, it was peaceful. This presents the second huge headache for the authoritarian spin on events. China strives to present democracy as something inappropriate for many peoples, starting of course with the Chinese themselves. Whenever the subject of democracy in Taiwan is highlighted in the news in China it is to exhibit footage of brawls in the parliament. Disorder in China, it is implied, would not be so easily contained as a legislative shoe fight. It could engulf the entire country, leading to great violence and destruction, such as China has already experienced in living memory. The unsubtle idea here is to say that democracy leads to disorder. Better to keep your nose down, to maintain “harmony” and to pursue growth.

The thing is that despite repeated provocation by the police and by a president who, reluctant to depart, played with expectations and all but taunted the huge crowds in Cairo, those crowds refused to become a mob. The democratic revolution that is just beginning in Egypt has so far handsomely resisted becoming anything like the Cultural Revolution, which employed mass violence to overturn an existing order.

How then to disparage what is going on in Egypt? It is not an easy challenge, and the dangerous messages for the Authoritarian International, and its putative leader, China, have only just begun to be unpacked.

Read more about the Chinese government’s attitude toward recent events in Egypt and official media coverage, via CDT.


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